K.I.S.S graphic by flickr user Kristian Bjornard

Social enterprise or social innovation? Keep it simple, stupid

To tackle societal problems we need more social enterprise and more social innovation, and we also need to understand in the simplest of terms why they are differents says Nathaniel Smith.

It’s a long-standing joke in social enterprise that no one can agree on a definition. Writing about the Ben and Jerry’s ‘Join Our Core’ competition way back in the year 2012, David Floyd remarked that, ‘The company are wisely ignoring calls to launch a new flavour called ‘Social Enterprise Definition’ (a confusing mix of broadly similar flavours producing a bitter aftertaste)’ . A friend of mine in Australia whilst I was working there opted out of one of the nation’s biggest social innovation conferences, explaining in a frustrated tone that most of the conference would have been spent debating definitions, rather than discussing how to get on with things.
Ok, so who noticed that I just used ‘social enterprise’ and ‘social innovation’ interchangeably as if they were one and the same? This happens a great deal, and it is this primarily that I want to draw attention to in this article, partly by putting forward some very simple definitions.
As tiresome as they are, unfortunately, definitions matter, so much so that the lack of clarity risks obscuring meaningful dialogue between people both inside and outside the worlds of social enterprise and social innovation. It is a shame that definitions can be a barrier, because ultimately we need more people involved in both social innovation and social enterprise.
It is because of this lack of clarity that I’m opting to weigh in on what I’m well aware is already a noisy debate.
Alright, so let’s have a go at differentiating between social innovation and social enterprise (*ducks for cover*):
Social innovation is trying new and experimental methods of tackling societal* problems.
Social enterprise is using business to tackle societal problems.
Essentially, social enterprise is one form of social innovation. It is an attempt to use business for social good. However, that is not to say that all social enterprise is the same; of course there is huge variety and innovation with social enterprise – but that is another debate. I’d posit that social enterprise has become so dominant as a form of social innovation largely because it has demonstrated impact and growth, perhaps more so than other attempts at social innovation so far. But really, social innovation could apply to any other approach to tackling societal problems – activism, policy, research, campaigning and so on. 
Anna Davies and Julie Simon of the Young Foundation present in their paper, ‘How to Grow Social Innovation’ a typology of social innovation, listing the ‘forms’ as:
  • New social enterprise/venture
  • New legislation
  • New behaviour
  • New service
Social enterprise practitioners have an unfortunate tendency to forget that these other forms exist. Business is merely one tool of a whole set that we can use, and we should discourage any impression that social enterprise has a monopoly on social innovation. In fact I’d venture that simply acknowledging this would be a good step forward in our effectiveness of tackling societal problems, because it mobilises us to merge social enterprise with areas like research, campaigning, policy and so forth; an approach that is far too rare, far too sensible, and would truly be ‘social innovation’. My opinion is that there is great potential here, and we ought to be exploring it.
In truth, neither social innovation nor social enterprise are really anything new. Social innovation as a concept has been around forever, it’s just that the terminology has changed. We’ve been trying to find new and better ways of solving problems in society for as long as societies have had problems (that’s a long time). One could even make a case that this is what the early Greek philosophers were doing and yes, I did just imply that Aristotle was a social innovator. Service clubs like Rotary and Lions Clubs are examples of social innovation. The first university was an example of social innovation. Likewise, in business there have been experiments in cooperatives and employee ownership models for as long as business has been around.
As I said, definitions do matter. But the simpler the better. To tackle societal problems we need more social enterprise and more social innovation, but the way we understand these things is weighed down by the current complex, confusing mess over definitions, leading to the mistaken belief that they are one and the same. Let’s free ourselves up and get on with doing good things.
*I’ve used the term ‘societal problem’ throughout this article, but this is also inclusive of environmental problems.**
**Yes, that was another definition.